Interview by Clare Cullen
A mature Criminology student is being forced to withdraw from her university course in order to keep her rent allowance for the home she shares with her young son.
Sarah Mulcahy, (31), was accepted into Ireland's first-ever Criminology course in UCC in 2014.
She explained to Independent.ie that, at the time, she had recently become a single mother and that the college were "extremely supportive". She completed her first semester enrolled in the SUSI grants system.
However, Mulcahy has a long-term illness, which required surgery after her first semester, in which she received first class honours. She was forced to defer her second semester with the intention to return in January 2016 to complete the year and continue on with her degree.
Due to her particular situation, Mulcahy was told that she would be eligible for the single parent allowance, disability benifit and illness benifit. All three provided rent allowance and each would allow her to graduate to the 'back to education' allowance to return to UCC and complete her studies.
Sarah explained to Independent.ie that she was "not aware" that the illness benefit - the scheme she says she was encouraged to apply for over the others - requires a two-year period before beneficiaries can apply for the 'Back To Education' allowance. She explained that the other two schemes only require nine months, which would have meant she could move to the 'Back To Education' allowance in time to return to college.
"I've been told that to keep my rent allowance I need to de-register from UCC".
Sarah says that it's not just waiting one year that provides the issue - she would lose her results thus far, and her grant, which covers her tuition fees.
"If I de-register, I become a repeat, and SUSI will not give me any tuition fees going forward".
"The choice is keep a roof over my head or continue my education".
"I remember Joan Burton telling people that... they had to take individual responsibility for their situations. Telling people to upskill and re-educate themselves... That's why I'm trying to do".
"To be already in a degree and told you have to remove yourself is devastating".
UCC Students' Union Deputy President, James Upton, told Independent.ie that the union were doing all they could to help Sarah, but that "everytime we get somewhere, we hit a wall. We are told it isn't possible and the system doesn't allow it or - my personal favourite - 'legislation is blocking it'".
"Over the last three months I have grown frustrated by the lack of coherency evident in the department of social protection, and its liaison with the Department of Education and Skills".
"Consistently I've identified a lack of coherency which seems evident when it comes to students. Sarah's first community welfare officer told her to apply for three different schemes. In November she was told in order to maintain her rent allowance she would have to de-register from UCC and recently at a meeting was advised again the only way of maintaining her allowance is to de-register from UCC; what is evident is a scathing reflection of operational procedures of the department of social protection. It's ironic really there is no protection for a single mother who is exercising her right to education".
"We have written, called and met with TDs those included Joan Burton, Enda Kenney, Kevin Humphrey's, Jerry Buttimer and Michael Martin none of who have given us a definitive answer to Sarah's situation. Instead they have propagated a culture in Sarah's life of sleepless nights and contemplation on whether to keep a roof over her head or not".
Upton accused the Government of focusing on getting re-elected instead of on the issues on their doorstep.
"The general election has swept the work off the desks of TDs leaving them fundamentally divorced from the issues that are pertinent in this general election in order to sell dreams to the irish people before February 26th. Unfortunately by the time they are finished selling these dreams Sarah may have no option but to de-register from UCC."
Despite this, Sarah is planning to use her vote in the General Election.
"I will vote... it's important to vote. A few weeks ago, I thought what's the point... but I will. These are the people who influence decision making in this county. It's important that people have a say... it's important that young people recognise that and have their say, that they vote for who they want to be in power and be involved in that".
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